A successful negotiation should more closely resemble an amicable conversation than a battlefield. After all, you’re far more likely to be successful if the other party is working with you to come to a mutually agreeable solution instead of actively fighting against you. However, no matter how likable you are or how much you smile, sooner or later, you’re bound to come across conflict. The fact that you’re coming from different backgrounds and are looking to achieve different goals makes this unavoidable.
Some might be tempted to try and skirt around the issue, believing that conflict will inevitably derail the negotiations and leave both parties unsatisfied. Unfortunately, pretending that there is no conflict at all is likely to just make the situation worse. Per Michael Erdle via the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, “Effective communication—listening and asking questions—and focusing on both the content and the relationship with others is key” to resolving conflict. Instead of avoidance, the timely application of de-escalation techniques and conflict resolution skills can help you address the source of the problem, allowing you to move past it in a healthy, professional manner.
What Causes Conflict?
While at its most basic, conflict is simply an indication of differences between parties, the details vary from case to case. In the context of a negotiation, there are a number of factors that could lead to such a situation. Some examples outlined by the Houston Chronicle include “ambiguity over responsibility and authority, competition over control of the situation, differences in work ethic or attitude, communication problems, personal or value-oriented differences and unequal reward systems.”
At a glance, you might look over the list and quickly determine none of these apply in your particular case. However, the key to understanding conflict is realizing that there is no objective reality in this sort of circumstance. For instance, you might perceive yourself and the other party as having the same opinions regarding work ethic. But that doesn’t mean said party shares your views on the matter. It’s possible that they may have misunderstood or misinterpreted something you said, leading them to believe you inappropriate and unprofessional. Keeping in mind that everyone involved might have a different understanding of the situation, here are some actionable steps towards getting a little clarity.
1. Practice Active Listening
This is the very basis of effective communication. When negotiations are starting to get a little tense, active listening can help you decipher where that tension is coming from. Once you have managed to pinpoint the source, you can more effectively address the issue. The problem with active listening is that it is generally much easier in theory than in practice.
Most people focus on the obvious when discussing active listening. They outline effective body language, eye contact, and using verbal confirmation to show that you are paying attention. Being present is certainly helpful; if the other person feels you are truly interested in their frustration, they are generally more receptive to your attempts to de-escalate. However, it’s not enough to just hear the other person. Oftentimes when we’re upset, we have difficulty confronting our issues head-on and talk around what’s most important. That’s why it’s vital that you apply critical thinking and listen to what isn’t being said as well.
For example, imagine a scenario where the other person seems particularly bothered by a small detail in your proposal. After practicing active listening, you might realize that, in actuality, the detail is representative of a much bigger problem. It’s not the detail itself that is concerning to them, but rather the larger implications tied to it. Once this is understood, you can stop wasting time and energy trying to address something that is ultimately irrelevant and focus on the real source of conflict.
2. Depersonalize the Issue
As a conflict escalates, it’s easy to make the transition from purely business-related issues to personal attacks. In order to keep a level head and ensure the discussion remains professional, you need to focus on speaking pragmatically, and not allow your emotions to get the best of you. Don’t take any negative assumptions or opinions to heart, and don’t start making accusations about the other party either. Instead, rephrase any concerns in a levelheaded, unbiased manner, without placing blame on any specific individuals.
It can also be helpful to look for objective criteria when trying to find a solution. Sometimes conflict arises due to missing information. By bringing in impartial third-party data into the equation, you can more effectively de-escalate the situation.
Keep in mind that conflict resolution isn’t about figuring out who’s right and wrong. It’s about understanding each other’s positions and shifting from a competitive response to a collaborative one, ensuring that both parties are satisfied with the outcome.
3. Identify Easy Wins
It can be difficult to think of a productive way to move forward when your respective positions are directly opposed. In this scenario, you need to accept that there is no easy solution that will give you both everything you want. Instead, “search for ways to slice the large issue into smaller pieces,” as suggested by Professor E. Wertheim of Northeastern University.
Rather than allow yourself to become discouraged by what you’re unable to agree upon, focus on what is realistic and achievable. Are there any small concessions you can make that would negatively affect you to a minimal extent while providing greater value to the other party? Identifying these easy wins can be a great way to shift the tone of the conversation.
Conflict Resolution in Action
Armed with these three tactics, you can navigate any conflict that arises over the course of negotiation. Identifying the source of the conflict, keeping a cool head, and identifying realistic compromises allows you to break through the perceived impasse and keep the negotiations going. Still, it can be easier said than done to keep things from allowing your emotions to affect your response. If you find you’re having difficulty de-escalating the dispute, try to refocus on what motivated you to start negotiations in the first place, and let that take precedence.
These skills will make the process of negotiation less stressful and more productive. That being said, it’s understandable that even in the best of circumstances, conflict isn’t something anyone looks forward to experiencing. While it may be difficult to prevent conflict in its entirety, there are plenty of strategies you can apply to minimize it. At the Shapiro Negotiations Institute, we have outlined a few ways to help your negotiations run more smoothly, making conflict far less likely.